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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Poland Mourns After President is Killed

The Wall Street Journal

WARSAW—Cities across Poland fell silent for two minutes Sunday afternoon as the country remembered President Lech Kaczynski and the dozens of other top officials who were killed in a plane crash in Russia Saturday.

As memorial services were held around Poland, the nation was in shock and mourning. At noon (6 a.m. ET), just before the two-minute memorial, thousands of bells and sirens rung out to commemorate the dead.

Poles filled the streets of the capital, bringing red and white flowers to the presidential palace and other official locations. A sea of candles at the gates of the presidential palace in Warsaw's Old Town poured out into the street, which has been packed with mourners since early Saturday. Thousands of people faced unusually heavy traffic Sunday as they tried to reach the palace to pay their respects to the late president.

Mr. Kaczynski's body arrived in Warsaw later in the afternoon and was driven in a cortege from the airport through the capital's city center and the narrow streets of its Old Town before arriving at the presidential palace, which served not only as Mr. Kaczynski's official residence, but also as his private home.

Mr. Kaczynski, his wife and 94 others in a high-level delegation were killed Saturday when their plane crashed on landing outside the western Russian city of Smolensk, officials said. Russian state television reported that the Tupolev-154 jet crashed about a kilometer short of the runway on its second attempt to land in heavy fog at the Smolensk-Severnyi military airport, shortly before 11 a.m. Moscow time.

Russian officials had initially said 97 people were killed but later revised the figure to 96.

"We still cannot fully understand the scope of this tragedy and what it means for us in the future," Foreign Ministry spokesman Piotr Pszkowski said. "Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland."

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Saturday called an emergency meeting of the cabinet before flying to Smolensk, where he and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin paid their respects at the crash site. Mr. Putin laid flowers on Mr. Kaczynski's coffin as an honor guard prepared to load it for the trip to Warsaw.
Journal Community

The government is working normally, according to the prime minister, as are the organizations and military commands whose leaders perished in the crash, with their deputies temporarily taking over their duties.

Poland's Health Minister arrived at a Moscow morgue late Sunday to prepare for the grim task of identifying the bodies, including that of Mr. Kaczynski's wife. Charter flights from Warsaw were expected late Sunday in Moscow bringing relatives of the victims. Officials said 14 of the dead were identified by documents, and 10 by physical characteristics. The rest of the 96 dead will require more complex techniques, such as DNA, officials said. "It's not always possible to identify them visually," Vyacheslav Zhurov, Moscow's chief medical examiner said. Relatives are expected at the morgue early Monday for identification, officials said.

A joint Polish-Russian team of investigators were preparing to examine the contents of the black boxes from the Tupolev-154 jet. Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia's Investigative Committee, told Mr. Putin Sunday that the preliminary analysis from the black boxes showed no sign of mechanical problems with the plane. "The pilot was informed about the difficult weather conditions but nevertheless made the decision to land," Mr. Bastrykin said.

Polish officials haven't commented publicly on the possible cause of the crash, while their Russian counterparts have pointed to crew error as the likely cause. The plane crashed short of the runway in heavy fog after controllers told the pilot to divert to Moscow or Minsk, Russian officials said.

In Moscow, officials awaited the arrival of dozens of relatives of the dead who were to begin the grim task of identifying the dead. At the crash site, relatives and local residents laid red and white carnations—the colors of the Polish flag—on the bits of the shattered plane still left in the woods.

A special train brought over 400 Poles back to Warsaw from Smolensk early Sunday. They had come to Russia for a memorial ceremony for the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet agents in 1940 in the woods of Katyn.

In neighboring Ukraine, flowers piled up alongside candles outside the Polish Embassy in Kiev on Sunday. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych embraced Polish Ambassador Jacek Kluczkowski, whose countries share deep historical ties, before announcing Monday a day of mourning.

Kateryna Pysarenko, a Ukrainian from the eastern city of Lviv, which was once part of Poland, laid one red and one white rose on the growing pile. "We are bound by our history and now by our grief," she said.

Magdalena Parchowska, a Pole living in Ukraine, said she hoped the disaster would draw attention to Soviet crimes in both countries, such as the massacre of Polish elite at Katyn, which were covered up for decades. "Ukrainians and Poles both understand what repression at the hands of the Soviets means. Now the whole world knows [about Katyn] and no one can be silent again," she said.

Mr. Kaczynski, 60 years old, was leading a delegation of top Polish officials to the event, which was canceled after the crash. "The soul trembles to think that Katyn has taken new victims," said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the International Affairs Committee in Russia's parliament.

According to the Polish Constitution, the speaker of the Sejm, Poland's lower house of Parliament, becomes the interim head of state in case of the death of the president. The interim president is required to call early presidential elections within two weeks from the day the president dies. The elections must take place within two months from the announcement of the election date. Bronislaw Komorowski, a key candidate in the presidential elections that would normally be scheduled in the autumn, is Poland's current Sejm speaker.

The Polish president enjoys limited prerogatives, representing the country as the head of state, but obliged to consult foreign and defense policy with the government.

Among the president's most important tools are the legislative initiative and the veto power, which Mr. Kaczynski and his predecessors exercised a number of times to successfully derail vital tax or health-care bills during the periods when they cooperated with governments held their political rivals.

Saturday's crash wiped out much of the Polish political elite from left and right, including the core figures in conservative opposition. Traveling with the president was the governor of the central bank, Slawomir Skrzypek, whose death may mean a change of the balance of power in the rate-setting Monetary Policy Council. First deputy governor Piotr Wiesolek has become the acting governor of the National Bank of Poland after Mr. Skrzypek's death.

Poland also lost its key military leaders, including Chief of Staff Gen. Franciszek Gagor. One of the key presidential contenders also died in the crash.

According to the most recent opinion polls, the late president, who was widely expected to run for re-election, was second behind the speaker of Parliament, with support rising over the past few weeks.

The conservative opposition, headed by the late president's identical twin brother Jaroslaw, has lost its obvious candidate and opinion polls have until now not given high chances to any other conservative politicians that would successfully challenge Mr. Komorowski, now Poland's acting president.